On Virtues And Politics

On Virtues And Politics

If the State is going to fall, it is from the belly – Akan proverb

RECENTLY I experienced the last of the great epic films in the trilogy based on Tolkien’s prophetic work, The Return of the King. The narrative filled with amazing events and encounters amounted to much more than who wins, who loses and who gets the Ring.Alert readers will recognise how strongly reminiscent this formulation is of the notion of politics; “who gets what, when and how”.At bottom, the film (based on Tolkien’s masterpiece written during the darkness of World War II) is a meditation on the value of tradition and heritage, the fragility of political order and social systems, and the true essence of friendship, loyalty, love and heroism (Ronge, 2003, p.18).When The Return of the King was crafted, the world experienced war and devastation on a scale hitherto unseen, many critics assuming it was an allegory reflecting the events of that destructiveness.They saw Sauron as Hitler and the Orcs as Nazis.Middle Earth was Europe (the primary theatre of war) and the Hobbits, Elves and other races were the nations of the world who rallied to oppose the darkness of fascism or maybe communism.Tolkien opposed that idea because he said an allegory would confine his work to a specific time and place.He believed that he had written a more universal work on the nature of the human spirit [1], a meditation on our capacity for evil, good, service and failure.History has proved him right.Succeeding generations, from the flower children through the anti-Vietnam student protesters of the 1960s to contemporary social movements, have connected Tolkien’s work to the issues of their time and regarded it as a victory for the weak, the marginal, the downtrodden.Tolkien inspired them in their opposition to the war-loving military empires of their day (again much in evidence in our time) or to the ruthless greed of global capitalism, in the case of contemporary social movements.Namibia Since we have entered a year of special political significance, our challenge is to rediscover the relevance and freshness of Tolkien’s vision for our lives and politics.The real key to the final chapter is simple.So simple, in fact, that one can easily miss the point.It is about two travellers who reach the end of their respective journeys and, for Tolkien, the journey was a powerful symbol.In 1956, he articulated his perception of the journey in these words: “Some persons are (or seem to be) more calculable than others.But that is due to their fortune rather than their nature.The calculable people reside in fixed circumstances, so it is difficult to observe them in situations that are strange.That is a good reason for sending the Hobbits on a journey far from their settled home into strange lands and dangers”.Tolkien wanted to strip away everything that was safe, familiar and routine to show how that loss reveals the inner elements of a character.When you confront the unknown and the extreme, said Tolkien, you perceive the true essence of the human spirit.That discovery is the theme of The Return of the King, in which Tolkien contrasts two journeys and invites the reader to compare and reflect upon the consequences.The more conventional journey is that of the military hero Aragorn.He is the proud, brave warrior who has lived in exile and now returns to claim his royal birthright and heal the injustices and pain of the past that have been inflicted on the people of Middle Earth.Namibia, too, has its crop of genuine (and some self-styled) military heroes who, in their attempt to claim their reward, deprive others of their validity.We effectively celebrate several liberation struggles and histories and have very little to show in the form of transcendent unity and reconciliation.There is a growing tendency to conflate the interests of the governing elites with those of the nation.The divide between those who went into exile, even if it was to survive on the generosity of others, runs deep in our national political life.Upon their return many have become accustomed to rank and wealth.Many make the claim that their suffering and pain outweighed those of the people who faced the brutality of apartheid during the long winters of discontent inside the country.Consequently, they feel that they are entitled to enjoy most of the fruits of Independence and are quick to display unashamedly the benefits of their newly acquired status and power: designer labels, executive cars, lavish homes and commercial farms.Some former exiles seem to have loved Namibia and their fellow Namibians only in their absence from the country.Since their return, the name of the game is their own personal advancement, often at the expense of others and in denial of their own history.Friendship hardly exists, for in friendship there is no anguish, resentment, jealous or suffering.We love our friends as they are, not for the positions that they occupy in public life or the patronage that they have to extend to us the social cachet of post-apartheid Namibian high life.Another feature of our political life is how mediocre it has become through arrogance and a lack of imagination.There is hardly a national debate on HIV-AIDS, poverty alleviation, corruption, gender-based violence, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), neo-liberal economics, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), Vision 2030, sustainable development or Zimbabwe, to mention but a few.Even at the University of Namibia (Unam) and the Polytechnic of Namibia, such debates are all too rare.In some quarters, attempts to have such debates are viewed with deep suspicion; to debate these and other issues is viewed as deviant and dangerous.The other journey in The Return of the King is the quest of Frodo, the humble but pure-hearted Hobbit who must carry the Ring into Mordor to destroy it in the eternal fires of Mt Doom.With him go his loyal servant, Samwise Gamgee, and the malevolent Gollum.It is an ironic partnership because Gollum is virtually the twisted alter ego of Frodo, a ridiculous portrayal of what would happen to the Hobbit if he succumbed to the Ring’s seductions of power.Frodo, the gentlest of spirits, as he journeys to the most dangerous parts of Middle Earth, also discovers the darkest parts of his own spirit, previously unknown to him but part of his inner being.In the words of Barry Ronge (2003, p.18): “Frodo and Gollum are the good and evil custodians of the Ring, implacably opposed to each other yet utterly dependent on each other to achieve their opposed goals”.Heroes In The Return of the King, Tolkien introduces two different kinds of hero: Aragorn, who engages in bloody battle to win the freedom of his people; and Frodo, whose journey is largely of the inner kind.On his journey he is accompanied by only one true friend.By showing us Aragorn and Frodo, Tolkien makes us question who is the greater hero and who has won the nobler victory.He also ponders what their achievements have done for their own souls.In the film, the climactic battle of the Pellenor Fields is the turning point of this epic drama.It contains compelling and terrifying footage of computer-generated armour-clad soldiers, dragons and gigantic multi-tusked elephants.Yet Tolkien did not write to glorify war.He hated the ambition and greed for power that create war.The battle for ownership of the Ring is a symbol of how everyone, even the noblest among us, can slip into the trap of desiring too much power.As the quotation at the beginning of this brief article reads: “If the state is going to fall, it is from the belly”.Like all societies, Namibia too has its Aragorns and Frodos, its high-profile public heroes who desire to write history in blood, and its countless unsung private heroes.Similarly, most of our virtues have humanity as their objective: therein lie their greatness and their limitation.True compassion, for example, is the one virtue that lets us open ourselves not just to all humanity but also to all living beings or, at the very least, to all suffering beings.Humanity, when we speak of it as a virtue, is nearly synonymous with compassion: o
ur ability to show love, loyalty, respect.As Namibians our challenge is no less than to expunge the violence (gender-based, physical, mental, structural, sexual) that appears to be the one constant in our politics – primitive aggressiveness – despite the lip-service which our politicians of various persuasions pay to the need for tolerance, peace and reconciliation.We need a new resolve, new practices to transcend our violent history.This act of critical self-examination will, however, be incomplete if it is wholly self-centred.Like Frodo we need to undertake a new journey.By this I mean that it is not enough to re-examine our own history, but to equally re-examine the very nature of other ideas with which we have been interacting.Above all, we need to rediscover the spirituality of this and other continents.FOOTNOTE [1] I am deeply indebted to Barry Ronge for this insight.REFERENCES Comte-Sponville, Andre (2001) A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues, The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. London: William Heinemann. Ronge, Barry (December, 14 2003) End of the Journey, in Sunday Times Magazine, pp. 18-20. Soyinka, Wole (1991) The Credo of Being and Nothingness. Ibadan: Spectrum Books.* Andre du Pisani teaches politics and philosophy at the University of Namibia.The narrative filled with amazing events and encounters amounted to much more than who wins, who loses and who gets the Ring. Alert readers will recognise how strongly reminiscent this formulation is of the notion of politics; “who gets what, when and how”. At bottom, the film (based on Tolkien’s masterpiece written during the darkness of World War II) is a meditation on the value of tradition and heritage, the fragility of political order and social systems, and the true essence of friendship, loyalty, love and heroism (Ronge, 2003, p.18). When The Return of the King was crafted, the world experienced war and devastation on a scale hitherto unseen, many critics assuming it was an allegory reflecting the events of that destructiveness. They saw Sauron as Hitler and the Orcs as Nazis. Middle Earth was Europe (the primary theatre of war) and the Hobbits, Elves and other races were the nations of the world who rallied to oppose the darkness of fascism or maybe communism. Tolkien opposed that idea because he said an allegory would confine his work to a specific time and place. He believed that he had written a more universal work on the nature of the human spirit [1], a meditation on our capacity for evil, good, service and failure. History has proved him right. Succeeding generations, from the flower children through the anti-Vietnam student protesters of the 1960s to contemporary social movements, have connected Tolkien’s work to the issues of their time and regarded it as a victory for the weak, the marginal, the downtrodden. Tolkien inspired them in their opposition to the war-loving military empires of their day (again much in evidence in our time) or to the ruthless greed of global capitalism, in the case of contemporary social movements. Namibia Since we have entered a year of special political significance, our challenge is to rediscover the relevance and freshness of Tolkien’s vision for our lives and politics. The real key to the final chapter is simple. So simple, in fact, that one can easily miss the point. It is about two travellers who reach the end of their respective journeys and, for Tolkien, the journey was a powerful symbol. In 1956, he articulated his perception of the journey in these words: “Some persons are (or seem to be) more calculable than others. But that is due to their fortune rather than their nature. The calculable people reside in fixed circumstances, so it is difficult to observe them in situations that are strange. That is a good reason for sending the Hobbits on a journey far from their settled home into strange lands and dangers”. Tolkien wanted to strip away everything that was safe, familiar and routine to show how that loss reveals the inner elements of a character. When you confront the unknown and the extreme, said Tolkien, you perceive the true essence of the human spirit. That discovery is the theme of The Return of the King, in which Tolkien contrasts two journeys and invites the reader to compare and reflect upon the consequences. The more conventional journey is that of the military hero Aragorn. He is the proud, brave warrior who has lived in exile and now returns to claim his royal birthright and heal the injustices and pain of the past that have been inflicted on the people of Middle Earth. Namibia, too, has its crop of genuine (and some self-styled) military heroes who, in their attempt to claim their reward, deprive others of their validity. We effectively celebrate several liberation struggles and histories and have very little to show in the form of transcendent unity and reconciliation. There is a growing tendency to conflate the interests of the governing elites with those of the nation. The divide between those who went into exile, even if it was to survive on the generosity of others, runs deep in our national political life. Upon their return many have become accustomed to rank and wealth. Many make the claim that their suffering and pain outweighed those of the people who faced the brutality of apartheid during the long winters of discontent inside the country. Consequently, they feel that they are entitled to enjoy most of the fruits of Independence and are quick to display unashamedly the benefits of their newly acquired status and power: designer labels, executive cars, lavish homes and commercial farms. Some former exiles seem to have loved Namibia and their fellow Namibians only in their absence from the country. Since their return, the name of the game is their own personal advancement, often at the expense of others and in denial of their own history. Friendship hardly exists, for in friendship there is no anguish, resentment, jealous or suffering. We love our friends as they are, not for the positions that they occupy in public life or the patronage that they have to extend to us the social cachet of post-apartheid Namibian high life. Another feature of our political life is how mediocre it has become through arrogance and a lack of imagination. There is hardly a national debate on HIV-AIDS, poverty alleviation, corruption, gender-based violence, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), neo-liberal economics, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), Vision 2030, sustainable development or Zimbabwe, to mention but a few. Even at the University of Namibia (Unam) and the Polytechnic of Namibia, such debates are all too rare. In some quarters, attempts to have such debates are viewed with deep suspicion; to debate these and other issues is viewed as deviant and dangerous. The other journey in The Return of the King is the quest of Frodo, the humble but pure-hearted Hobbit who must carry the Ring into Mordor to destroy it in the eternal fires of Mt Doom. With him go his loyal servant, Samwise Gamgee, and the malevolent Gollum. It is an ironic partnership because Gollum is virtually the twisted alter ego of Frodo, a ridiculous portrayal of what would happen to the Hobbit if he succumbed to the Ring’s seductions of power. Frodo, the gentlest of spirits, as he journeys to the most dangerous parts of Middle Earth, also discovers the darkest parts of his own spirit, previously unknown to him but part of his inner being. In the words of Barry Ronge (2003, p.18): “Frodo and Gollum are the good and evil custodians of the Ring, implacably opposed to each other yet utterly dependent on each other to achieve their opposed goals”. Heroes In The Return of the King, Tolkien introduces two different kinds of hero: Aragorn, who engages in bloody battle to win the freedom of his people; and Frodo, whose journey is largely of the inner kind. On his journey he is accompanied by only one true friend. By showing us Aragorn and Frodo, Tolkien makes us question who is the greater hero and who has won the nobler victory. He also ponders what their achievements have done for their own souls. In the film, the climactic battle of the Pell
enor Fields is the turning point of this epic drama. It contains compelling and terrifying footage of computer-generated armour-clad soldiers, dragons and gigantic multi-tusked elephants. Yet Tolkien did not write to glorify war. He hated the ambition and greed for power that create war. The battle for ownership of the Ring is a symbol of how everyone, even the noblest among us, can slip into the trap of desiring too much power. As the quotation at the beginning of this brief article reads: “If the state is going to fall, it is from the belly”. Like all societies, Namibia too has its Aragorns and Frodos, its high-profile public heroes who desire to write history in blood, and its countless unsung private heroes. Similarly, most of our virtues have humanity as their objective: therein lie their greatness and their limitation. True compassion, for example, is the one virtue that lets us open ourselves not just to all humanity but also to all living beings or, at the very least, to all suffering beings. Humanity, when we speak of it as a virtue, is nearly synonymous with compassion: our ability to show love, loyalty, respect. As Namibians our challenge is no less than to expunge the violence (gender-based, physical, mental, structural, sexual) that appears to be the one constant in our politics – primitive aggressiveness – despite the lip-service which our politicians of various persuasions pay to the need for tolerance, peace and reconciliation. We need a new resolve, new practices to transcend our violent history. This act of critical self-examination will, however, be incomplete if it is wholly self-centred. Like Frodo we need to undertake a new journey. By this I mean that it is not enough to re-examine our own history, but to equally re-examine the very nature of other ideas with which we have been interacting. Above all, we need to rediscover the spirituality of this and other continents. FOOTNOTE [1] I am deeply indebted to Barry Ronge for this insight. REFERENCES Comte-Sponville, Andre (2001) A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues, The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. London: William Heinemann. Ronge, Barry (December, 14 2003) End of the Journey, in Sunday Times Magazine, pp. 18-20. Soyinka, Wole (1991) The Credo of Being and Nothingness. Ibadan: Spectrum Books. * Andre du Pisani teaches politics and philosophy at the University of Namibia.

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